Tonight I attended a quilter’s guild meeting in my little town. The topic of the meeting was the Jane Stickle quilt of 1863. Several of the women in the group recently returned from a trip to the Bennington Museum in Vermont where they went to view Jane Stickle’s masterpiece, and were exhilarated and inspired by their pilgrimage. Some of them had even undertaken, over the past year, to make their own reproductions of the intricate quilt, which contains a total of 5,602 pieces, and displayed them at the meeting.
As I sat and listened to them recount their experiences reproducing and visiting the Jane Stickle quilt, I wondered at their homage, and at my own feelings of reverence for this woman and what she created.
Census reports tell us that Jane Stickle was born Jane Blakely on April 8, 1817 in Shaftsbury, Vermont. Married to Walter Stickle sometime before 1850, they did not have a family of their own. They did, however, take responsibility for at least three other children. In an 1860’s census, Jane Stickle was listed as a 43 year-old farmer living alone. She eventually reunited with her husband, but during that time alone she lovingly created what is now known as the Jane Stickle Quilt. As a reminder of the turbulent times the country was going through, she carefully embroidered “In War Time 1863” into the quilt.
There is so much left out of that brief history, but also so much revealed. The bare facts and the story they outline put me in mind of master historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and the course I took from her while I was in college. In her book, Good Wives, she is able to glean rich details from the lives of simple women through historical records as sparse as a county probate inventory.
Even more importantly, Ulrich directs students of women’s history to the ways women of all ages have found expressions for their intellect and art, even if it is in the quiet, historically transparent realms of house and home. While I was taking her course, she introduced us to the writings of Alice Walker. Specifically her essay entitled, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” Walker writes about the legacy of slave women and their descendants. Working women with no time or outlet for their creative, artistic voices. “When, you will ask,” she writes, “did my overworked mother have time to know or care about feeding the creative spirit? The answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high — and low.”
Walker then points us to another quilt. One that hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. A priceless quilt “made of bits and pieces of worthless rags,” but “obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.”
Walker goes on to describe her own mother’s flower garden — a place “so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia — and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.”
And here is the part of Walker’s essay that touches on the feeling – the appreciation and awe – that was present at the quilt guild meeting tonight:
“I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible — except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities — and the will to grasp them.”
It is this legacy that we cherished tonight at my quilting meeting. We were profoundly moved that a simple woman, through ingenuity, art, and persistence, could create something so astonishing. And we found validation in the work of our souls.
QUESTION: What helps you to use your creativity and do “the work of your souls”?
CHALLENGE: Think of one way you can develop your talents and participate in work or hobbies that you really enjoy.